Dress to Impress

Recently, the lovely Kelly raised an excellent point. She wrote, “Another piece of my wardrobe that I’ve found to be lacking is the business/interview outfit. I’ve had to attend the occasional business meeting since I became a stay-at-homer, because of my freelance work, and I have no workplace-appropriate clothes left in my closet. So that’s another piece to add to my wardrobe shopping list.”

Did someone say shopping? I love shopping.

Shopping is easier, as we all know, when we know SPECIFICALLY what we’re looking for. So when you’re interviewing for a job, what should you be looking for? Or–more tricky–when you’re Kelly, and you will go to business type meetings SOME times but not ALWAYS, how can you make your wardrobe work for you?

First things first: if you are EVER going to meet with ANYONE who may be a potential employer or client, you need to have something in your closet that is work appropriate. As a freelancer, EVERY meeting with a client is essentially an interview; when this particular project is over, you want the client to offer you more work, or to recommend you to someone else who wants to offer you work. The upside of freelancing is that you work essentially on your own schedule; the downside, of course, is that you are always looking for a job. The way you present yourself at that meeting goes a long way toward getting you hired, before you have even done any work for the client.

Go ahead, call me shallow, but I absolutely believe this: what you wear to an interview–for a short-term freelance assignment or a full-time career position–says a lot about you, about your competence and qualifications. For starters, it shows the potential employer that you understand what kind of workplace she’s running; it also shows that you respect her and the time she is taking to meet with you. What you wear speaks to your work ethic and your moral sense. I know, I know, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but if you show up for a meeting in ripped jeans and a tank top that shows the world your rack, you may not make the best possible impression.

Unless you’re freelancing as a stripper. Which I assume most of you are not. Although, if you are? I totally want to hear about that.

So how do you shop for a job interview?

The first thing is to know the environment in which you will be working–or in which the people you will be working for will be working. Does everyone in this particular business wear a suit to work? Or is it more of a cargo pants-and-graphic-tees kind of organization? I’m going to assume that you will be freelancing in a field that you already know something about, including what the dress code is; if that’s not true, then you need to do some research and find out what people wear to work. The same goes for an interview for a conventional job; find out what people wear to work in this field and plan accordingly.

Here are three possible outfits for three different work environments; all three include pieces that you either already own or could easily incorporate into your every day wardrobe.

Option One: Funky Casual
Office attire consists of jeans or cargo pants and tees, for the most part. Shorts and sandals may be acceptable for every day wear. Very casual.

What to Wear: You can wear jeans for this interview, but chose a pair with a dark rinse, hemmed for heels (do NOT wear anything faded or ripped–in fact, throw those away altogether). Pair them with a sweater or cool tee and a fitted jacket; Banana Republic has a nice selection. Open toed shoes are fine, but flip flops and other casual sandals are not. Go with a pretty peep toed pump in an interesting fabric or pattern. But please, pedicure first. Really.

Option Two: Business Casual
No jeans, but no suits. Casual but conservative; shorts and short skirts are out, as are open toed shoes.

What to Wear: Wool trousers or skirt with a jacket. You can put a tee or a pretty camisole under the jacket as long as you leave it on; the tee should not have any writing or pictures on it and the camisole should cover the girls. If you think you might take the jacket off, chose a sweater or blouse. Go with heels or a flat with a pointy toe or some cool embellishment.

Option Three: Business Attire
Suits for all, or some reasonable facsimile thereof. Yes, Virginia, there ARE still fields where people wear suits; my husband works in one. Envy him.

What to Wear: A suit (duh). I’m serious about this; if you’re going to work for people who go All Out at work, you need to meet their standards. Think about a suit that has pants AND a skirt, for maximum mileage. The pants should be hemmed for heels; the skirt should fall to just below the knee when you stand up (any shorter and you’re showing off some not-work-friendly assets, particularly when you sit down). If this is your basic, go-to suit, choose a neutral color; I like charcoal grey or brown. Black can make you look tired and frumpy, while light colors show dirt. Stick with a classic cut and a seasonless wool fabric. Ann Taylor Loft has beautiful AND affordable suits; J. Crew has magnificent, timeless suits, but they WILL cost you. Remember that a tailor can be your best friend; a suit won’t always fit right off the rack. When you’re not going to interviews, feel free to separate the pieces; wear the pants with a pretty sweater and the jacket with your jeans and the skirt with . . . well, everything. For the interview, pair your suit with a dressier shoe, like a beautiful pump or slingback. I do not suggest bare legs with the skirt; neutral hose are the best look. Wear a blouse or broadcloth shirt or a dressy sweater. Avoid obvious cleavage at all costs.

A few other rules:

Don’t wear anything that doesn’t fit right. Haven’t tried your suit on since you had the baby? Try it on, right now; don’t assume that on the morning of the interview you will be able to squash yourself into it. You will spend the entire interview fretting about how your spleen is being crushed by the pants.

Don’t wear anything stained or pilled or torn. Although OF COURSE you don’t have anything like this, because I feel CERTAIN that you have recently cleaned your closet and tossed all those things. RIGHT?

Check your hemlines, both above and below. Potential employers want you for your brain, not your legs. Or your tits. Unless, again, you are a stripper, in which case you can wear whatever you want to your interview.

Avoid jangly jewelry. Charm bracelets are back, and I love mine, but damn it’s noisy. Don’t distract the employer.

Err on the side of MORE dressed up. Of course, think carefully about this; you probably don’t need to wear a suit to meet with the Casual Friday office, for example. But never, EVER wear flip flops to an interview (or to the White House). EVER.

In the end, though, the Most Important rule is this: don’t assume that because you WORK from home, your at-home clothes can double as work clothes. Sure, you may wear your yoga pants the ENTIRE time you’re doing the actual project–they may even be the SAME yoga pants, for all I know–but don’t be tempted to wear them to the office to drop off the finished product. It honestly doesn’t take that much more effort to make a really good impression, and if we’re talking about your livelihood here, it’s worth the extra few minutes. Know your clients, shop your closet, make a plan.

It’s that easy.

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One response to “Dress to Impress

  1. Great suggestions, Susan! I have always wondered about the black suit – it seems to me to be very classic, but I am 21 and I am going for the confident look, not for the “I can’t dress in my age bracket” idea.

    Any thoughts on suiting ideas for the younger (i.e. cash-strapped college student) crowd??

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